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An Alphabet for Joanna by Damian Rogers is an emotional look at secrets, trauma and healing

The American Canadian poet and editor spoke with Shelagh Rogers about being raised by a loving but 'erratic' single mother.
An Alphabet for Joanna is a book by Damian Rogers. (Knopf Canada, Mike Belitsky)

American Canadian poet Damian Rogers grew up with secrets and stories — including mysteries about her own birth and fragmented stories about her mother's life. 

An Alphabet for Joanna is the story of Rogers' upbringing in suburban Detroit in the 1970s and her unique relationship with her mother, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of frontal-lobe dementia. But it's also a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves, and how we create and hold onto memories.

Rogers spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing An Alphabet for Joanna.

Guarded about the past

"My mother did experience some dramatic traumas as a child. Because of that, the past was always a complicated place for her. She gave me very few details about what her life was really like as a young woman. She could not go back to that place safely. She had found all these ways in which to protect herself from aspects of her past that were unbearable for her. 

"These were linked very much to the persistent sense of shame that was placed on her around my birth. There is this feeling that she was responsible for everything that had happened to her body. This is something that the young women and women of all ages still struggle against — this idea that we are responsible for what happens to us. 

My mother did experience some dramatic traumas as a child. Because of that, the past was always a complicated place for her.

"She carried that in a way that made her own past a very complicated and dangerous landscape for her."

Telling our story

"This was not a quick project for me. I spent several years working on it in earnest. I had spent probably my whole life working on thinking about it, and I've always written about my mother and my poems. 

"I would never have written about her in this very direct, open, honest way if she were in a position where it could hurt her. But I know that it can't. I also know that there's a kind of release that comes with telling the truth.

This was not a quick project for me. I spent several years working on it in earnest.

"What happened to my mother, my mother's story she doesn't want me to tell, is inseparable from who I am and who I became. I respected the fact that my mother made the choices that she made. But I also felt that I had to make a different choice."

Damian Rogers' comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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